Auschwitz, the Director's Cut: How Poland Is Rewriting the Holocaust Narrative

Polish officials are going to lengths to stress the suffering endured by their countrymen in World War II, while downplaying discussion of the Shoah and of the help Poles gave the Nazis. Israel's government is ignoring this trend, but may soon be forced to face shifts in the collective memory of the war

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and museum director Piotr Cywinski at Auschwitz, December 6, 2019.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and museum director Piotr Cywinski at Auschwitz, December 6, 2019. Credit: KACPER PEMPEL/Reuters
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The visitors’ books at museums rarely stir up any special curiosity. “Interesting,” “Thank you” or “Recommended” are some of the terms that frequently recur in them, in one form or another. At memorial sites, certainly in former death camps, visitors are also prone to leave comments such as, “We will never forget” or “We will not forgive.”

But earlier this month an unusual inscription appeared in the visitors’ book at the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Poland: “In recognition of all the victims of the German terror and occupation during World War II. In gratitude to everyone who cares about the truth and the memory of the second apocalypse. Whoever is passive against evil – it is as though he took part in it. Whoever is passive in the face of the lies of history and recognition of the truth – it is as though he took part in writing it. We will see to truth and kindness, for all of us today and for the sake of the coming generations and the victims of those crimes.” It was signed: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

At first glance, it’s not clear how this short, rather philosophical text – dealing with truth, lies, memory and forgetfulness – is related to a site commemorating victims of the war. A random reader might wonder what truth Morawiecki has in mind, and what lies he is warning against. A rereading raises additional questions. Was there no place here for a single word about the people that constituted 90 percent of the camp’s victims? Where did the million Jews who were murdered there – out of a total of 1.1 million victims – disappear to?

People knowledgeable about domestic politics in Poland were probably not surprised by the comments of Morawiecki, as he accompanied German Chancellor Angela Merkel on December 6 during her first, historic visit to the site since she took office 14 years ago (only two previous chancellors had visited Auschwitz). He chose his words carefully, consistent with the ideology espoused by the right-wing, national government he heads, which was recently elected to a second consecutive term.

The “policy of memory” concerning World War II that the Polish government is promoting with considerable success these days emphasizes the war’s Polish victims and the heroism of the Righteous among the Nations who risked their lives to rescue Jews in the country. Similarly, other Poles who tried to fight the Nazis and paid with their lives are also being acknowledged.

Poland is thus working to right what many Poles view, justly, as a prolonged historic wrong. Germany, which fomented the war and perpetrated the Holocaust, is perceived internationally today as an enlightened country, and its capital, Berlin, is a highly popular tourist destination. By contrast, Poland, on whose soil the Germans carried out the “Final Solution,” is deplored as “the largest Jewish cemetery in the world,” and its citizens are widely accused of having collaborated with the Nazis.

“The Jews forgave Germany because they received money from the Germans, and redirected their anger at the Poles, who themselves suffered from the Germans’ brutality” – that is the essence of the claim being voiced by many Poles. However, by its very nature, the reshaping of the world’s collective memory to make it more forgiving toward the Poles, entails forgetting and silencing other chapters in the tragic history of Polish-Jewish relations. In part these are dark episodes that do not fit the narrative of victimhood and heroism – notably the part played by Poles in persecuting Jews before, during and after the Holocaust. These phenomena, which are well documented in innovative studies, conducted primarily by Polish researchers, are shunted aside and castigated by the Polish leadership as acts of marginal elements of the sort that exist among every people, the Jews included. Thus, as though to add insult to injury, a supposed analogy is drawn between, for example, a member of the Jewish Police who dragged Jews to the place of transports – under threats of murder by the Germans and in a desperate, unavailing effort to save himself and his loved ones – and a Pole who informed on or even murdered his Jewish neighbor in return for payment or in some cases for no recompense. The scale of these phenomena within Jewish and Polish societies at the time, their contexts and their significance, are not up for discussion.

Trenchant debate

Next month will mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Many eyes around the world will be trained on the memorial site there on January 27, where a ceremony will be held in the presence of leaders from many countries. More than likely it will also be possible to discern hints of the great drama that has been unfolding in recent years in regard to the memory of the Holocaust and the way it is being commemorated.

If anyone in Israel or the Diaspora thinks that the memorial site at Auschwitz should be devoted primarily to the memory of the Jews, the current Polish dialogue might give him pause for thought. The principal victims of Auschwitz have lost their “title” to the site and are now mentioned only as part of a list, usually headed by the Poles, of additional victims of the camp, despite the significant differences in the circumstances of their murder.

It should be pointed out that while Nazi Germany acted to physically annihilate all the Jews – men, women and children, as part of a systematic plan – it also enslaved and murdered non-Jewish Poles in large numbers (even if not systematically), perceiving them as racially and culturally inferior and lacking any right to a political existence. The basic difference between the murder of the Jews and that of the Poles lies not only in the totality of the effort, but in the priority and preference accorded to the murder of the Jews. The annihilation of the Jews was a central goal of the Nazi regime, and was not – as in the case of the Poles – merely a means for terrorizing the population or for exploitation.

In a certain sense, the current transformations in the nature of Holocaust memory are a continuation of a trenchant debate from the 1960s, when Israel sought to take part in commemoration of the Jews by means of a pavilion that would be built in the camp. Poland, then under communist rule, refused, claiming that Israel was not the representative of the Jewish people. In May 1963, Israel’s ambassador to Poland, Avigdor Dagan, met with the director general of the Polish Foreign Ministry in Warsaw. “The Auschwitz museum will present the tragedy of all the citizens of Poland who were incarcerated and murdered there by the Nazis,” the Polish official stated. To which Dagan replied, “There is not a Jew in the world who will understand why the State of Israel, about which the thousands of victims of Oswiecim [Auschwitz, in Polish] dreamed, and where the largest number of those who remained alive are now living, has been prevented from commemorating the Jewish victims.”

The Poles prevailed: It was not until 15 years later, in 1978, that the “Jewish pavilion” was inaugurated at the site.

Today, as 2020 looms, even the most salient symbol of the Germans’ Final Solution is being harnessed for the Polish effort “to correct the historical narrative” as it is perceived in Poland. The omission of the Jews from the Polish premier’s remarks in the Auschwitz visitors’ book is not accidental. It is consistent with an orientation that has several dimensions. The most central tendency is to play down Jewish victimhood and emphasize that of the Poles. In Polish discourse no distinction is associated with the plan to annihilate the Jewish people. It is considered just one more wrong in a series of wrongs committed by the Nazi regime, with the result that in practice any difference between Jewish and Polish victims is obscured.

The omission of the Jews from the Polish premier's remarks in the Auschwitz visitors’ book is not accidental.

Accordingly, it is customary in the country to speak of six million Polish victims of the Nazis. This combines three million Polish Jews (about half of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust) and a similar number of Poles who were victims of ethnic cleansing – even though there are certain basic differences between the two groups. At the same time it is argued that because the two peoples died in equal numbers at the hands of the Nazis, it is inconceivable that one of those groups was an accomplice – in one way or another – to their crimes. This claim is accompanied by distortion and falsification of data, and at times by a lack of proportion and tendentious, ahistorical comparisons.

Morawiecki did not completely ignore the Jewish victims at Auschwitz; he mentioned them in his speech there. But he did so within a larger, comprehensive context, citing the victims of the camp one after the other: “Jews, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies.” The Polish prime minister is well aware of the numbers, with respect to Auschwitz: about one million Jews murdered, some 150,000 Poles, around 16,000 Russians and about 23,000 Roma and Sinti. Is this the “truth” he was referring to?

At the same time, in order to play up the Polish victims, in another part of the speech Morawiecki mentioned the compensation that Poland is demanding from Germany for war damages, and referred to this as “justice” that his government would work to achieve. To date Germany has rejected the demand, maintaining that it already resolved this issue in the past.

The subject of compensation for wartime victims, from a different angle, has become a pretext for innumerable expressions of anti-Semitism in present-day Poland. The focal point is the attempt by the United States to settle the sensitive issue of compensation for Jewish-owned property throughout the world that was plundered during the Holocaust. The Polish far right sees this as a “Jewish plot” and maintains that Poland does not have to compensate the Jews for property the Nazis stole from them and which the Polish communist regime afterward nationalized. In contrast, Jewish organizations view this as justice undelivered, and note that Poland is the only country that has not enacted legislation about the issue of property the Jews left behind in the country.

‘Little Polish bandits’

The prime minister’s message in the visitors’ book is not the only expression of the new Polish campaign to change the victimhood narrative. More important was the decision that at the ceremony held in the presence of the leaders of Germany and Poland, the only speaker from among the camp’s victims would be a non-Jewish Pole. This speaker, a former Auschwitz prisoner named Bogdan Bartnikovsky, related that in August 1944, following the failed Warsaw uprising by the Poles that cost the lives of about a quarter of a million citizens, he was expelled to the camp with a group of women and children from the Polish capital. “Little Polish bandits” was the Germans’ derogatory term for them, he said. Bartnikovsky recounted that inmates did not wash for some days because the Germans denied them soap and towels, and that they were forced to take refuge in cellars in the camp during Allied aerial attacks. He devoted most of his speech to the difficulty he had disrobing in front of women as a boy of 12.

It is the right of the Poles, indeed their obligation, to mention the suffering of their people and make the world aware of it. The Poles are correct when they say that many people do not know about the steep price the Nazi occupation exacted from their country. As part of the Germans’ racist conception about Poland, its leaders – clergy, political leaders, academics and intellectuals – were persecuted and murdered in masses. In addition, millions of Poles (mostly young people) were thrown into concentration camps and subjugated under harsh conditions. Many others were executed in the German effort to terrorize the occupied country.

Yet the question remains: Is it necessary to right one wrong by causing another? For the voice of the Polish inmate from Auschwitz to be heard, does the voice of the Jews – who were the absolute majority of those murdered in the camp – need to be silenced? Was there no place at least to have a Jewish Holocaust survivor also speak during Merkel’s unprecedented visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau?

Polish President Andrjez Duda did not attend the event, but sent a message to be read out in the ceremony. “It was here that Jews were murdered, as well as Poles, Roma, Sinti and Soviet prisoners of war,” he stated, reiterating the list drily without mentioning the numbers relating to the communities or their significance. He, too, like the prime minister, spoke of the “truth” as a value that the Poles must defend. “Taking care of the premises of the former camp is part of… the mission of nurturing and disseminating the truth about Shoah,” he said.

But one must ask whether truth must also encompass a lie. Is it not possible to speak about a more complex truth? Moreover, if this is the “truth” – is the voice of the Jewish victims a lie?

For the voice of the Polish inmate from Auschwitz to be heard, does the voice of the Jews – the absolute majority of those murdered in the camp – need to be silenced?

Chancellor Merkel did not mention the exclusion of the Jews as a subject by the speakers who preceded her at the ceremony. But when her turn came to speak, she proved that it is possible to talk about the suffering of the Poles without obliterating the fact that the majority of the camp’s victims were Jews. Merkel stated explicitly that Auschwitz “stands for the millions of European Jews who were murdered,” and that “at least 1.1 million people, the majority of them Jews,” were murdered at the camp.

However, what was more important for the Poles was that Merkel emphasized the non-Jewish victims. “At this site, we remember in particular the many Polish victims, including political prisoners, for whom Auschwitz concentration camp was originally built,” she said. As was expected of her, and as former chancellors have done, she, too, expressed “shame” at the Germans’ crimes and declared that Germany would donate another 60 million euros (matching a previous donation by Berlin) to help preserve the site.

In her remarks she also reinforced the Polish struggle, which is basically just, against those who term Auschwitz a “Polish camp.” “Oswiecim is in Poland, but in October 1939 Auschwitz was annexed into the German Reich. Auschwitz was a German extermination camp, operated by Germans,” she said, adding. “It is important to identify the perpetrators clearly. We Germans owe that to the victims, and to ourselves… This responsibility is an integral part of our national identity.”

These remarks were meaningful to the Poles. In recent years they have been engaged in a considerable effort to tell the world that the Germans – not the Poles – perpetrated the Holocaust, and built and ran Auschwitz. The staff of the camp’s museum are also part of this effort, almost on a daily basis. For example, after the ceremony, one important international media outlet described Auschwitz as a “Polish camp,” and drew an immediate tweet from the museum requesting that the mistake be corrected.

That endeavor could be praiseworthy, as every correction of a historical mistake is welcome. But it appears that the resources Poland is devoting to the struggle involving the term “Polish camp” are not comparable to what is going into the effort to correct other historical distortions – about facts that are not necessarily flattering to the Poles. Thus, for example, there has been no Polish campaign to decry the pogrom perpetrated in the town of Jedwabne in 1941, where Poles murdered hundreds of their Jewish neighbors before the Germans arrived. If what interests the Polish establishment is solely the truth, why does it not also confronting head-on the deniers of that mass murder?

‘I ask for forgiveness’

The ceremony in honor of Merkel’s visit to Auschwitz was not the beginning but rather the continuation of a process. On September 1, the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, senior representatives from Germany, the United States and other countries (but not Israel) were invited to a series of state ceremonies and commemorative events in Poland. In all of them the emphasis was mainly on the suffering of the Poles.

Poland chalked up a major diplomatic achievement when German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier asked for forgiveness from the war’s Polish victims. “I bow before the victims of the attack on Wielun,” Steinmeier stated in remarks delivered in German and in Polish in the first city bombed by the Luftwaffe, eight decades beforehand. “I bow before the Polish victims of German tyranny. And I ask for your forgiveness.” That ceremony enabled Poland to train a global spotlight on facts that are not known to the general public and are not mentioned, for example, in Israeli textbooks. Indeed, 1,200 of Wielun’s inhabitants were killed in the German attack.

Steinmeier added that the Nazis had intended to eradicate “Poland, its culture, its cities and its people – all living things were to be annihilated.” In a speech that day in Warsaw, he said, “We will not forget the suffering of Polish families and nor will we forget the courage of their resistance.”

The United States also contributed to the display of solidarity with the Polish victims. “There is a courage and a strength deep in the Polish character that no one could destroy,” Vice President Mike Pence stated in Warsaw, adding, “Poland is a homeland of heroes.”

But it’s far from certain that this is the proper terminology – it’s definitely not the only terminology – to use to describe the conduct of Poland and of Poles in World War II. Many leading historians would not sign off on the term “heroes” in the Polish context. And anyway, can an entire nation be characterized as “heroic”?

It is not by chance that the scale and nature of the losses were different in each group: about 10 percent of Poland’s non-Jewish residents vs. about 90 percent of its Jews.

A year ago, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called on the world to acquaint itself more thoroughly with Polish suffering during the war. “The unspeakable crimes that Germans committed against and in Poland during the [war] are, to this day, a source of shame for us,” Maas said, adding, “We also have to admit that even now, we do not pay enough attention in Germany to the crimes against Poles.”

Poland’s ambassador to Germany, Andrjez Przylebski, maintained on that occasion that the Germans were confining discourse concerning World War II solely to the Holocaust of Europe’s Jews, to the point where Polish victims were “completely forgotten or downplayed.” He added that Germany is treating the subject “as if Hitler was primarily or exclusively concerned with the murder of European Jews.” The Polish effort has scored successes involving Israel, too. One of its major achievements occurred in March 2018, when a singular memorial ceremony was held at Auschwitz with the participation of Israeli and Polish high-school students. Those being commemorated were not only Jewish victims in the camp – members of the families of some of the Israel students on hand. Names of Poles who were murdered in the war were also read out, among them relatives of the Polish students.

The Polish embassy in Israel, which helped organize the event, expressed great satisfaction afterward. “The Israeli students were impressed that World War II was a global event with many casualties, in which many people from different countries were murdered, including millions of Polish victims,” Katarzyna Rybka-Iwanska, a senior embassy official, stated later.

Comparing the calamity of the Jews in the Holocaust to that of the Poles in World War II only underscores how unequal the persecution was. Not because Jewish blood is worth less or more than Polish blood. Murder is murder, whether the victim is Jewish, Polish or from any other group. The difference stems from the different ideological motives that led to the acts of murder and to the way they were committed. The Jewish population in Poland and elsewhere, in contrast to the Polish people, was condemned to total and absolute annihilation. Entire communities were transported to murder sites and snuffed out.

It is not by chance that the scale and nature of the losses were different in each group: about 10 percent of Poland’s non-Jewish residents vs. about 90 percent of its Jews. To the complexity of the Jewish suffering we must add the fact that across Europe, and for different reasons, individuals and societies mobilized to assist Nazi Germany in hunting down Jews. Poland fought valiantly against the Nazi occupier, but parts of Polish society helped in a very particular aspect of the occupation: the persecution of the Jews. In this connection the words of Elie Wiesel continue to resonate: “Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”

Official Israel is ignoring the current trend in Poland and elsewhere with respect to the victimhood narrative. Already in the near future, it might find itself helpless and at a loss for words in the face of shifts that are occurring, right under its nose, in the world culture of memory with regard to the victims of World War II.

Evidence of this was seen last year in the acerbic and unprecedented debate between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior historians at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial institute in Jerusalem, over the joint declaration he had signed with his Polish counterpart. The document states that many Poles took part in rescuing Jews while “some people – regardless of their origin, religion or worldview – revealed their darkest side at that time.” Yad Vashem accused the two leaders of distorting and twisting history and of violating the memory of the Holocaust. In the wake of the criticism, Netanyahu promised he would be attentive to comments, but afterward the subject disappeared from the public agenda. For the time being.

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